It is perhaps a love of words that endears the Irish to Saint Patrick. Son of a West Britain Roman family, at age sixteen Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. Six years later he escaped, fled to the coast, and was hired on as kennel master to a German boat that was transporting Irish wolfhounds to the continent.
After many hardships, he at last reached home. Once returned to his family, he entered the priesthood. When Rome decided to send an evangelical mission to Ireland, Patrick volunteered saying that in his dreams he had heard Irish voices crying, “We beg you, come and walk among us again!”
At the age of 42, he returned to Ireland as an ordained bishop. Patrick was a natural candidate for the job since he could speak Gaelic, and was familiar with the Irish clan hierarchy. His plan was simple: convert the Celtic chieftains and the people would follow.
In a manner befitting any clan leader, Patrick carried with him a full company of assistants. Priests, deacons, readers, a psalm singer, a bell ringer, two smiths, three carpenters, a bodyguard, a personal valet, a cowherd, a butcher, a cook, a brewer, two waiters, and three ladies who embroidered. A man with such a large retinue had great credibility and, though wary of his purposes, Irish leaders granted him audience.
Soon after arriving, Patrick met with King Laegaire at Tara, the high seat of Ireland’s kings, to explain the Christian doctrine. Surrounded by Druids, enemies and successors of his former captors, the ex-slave held up a shamrock, the humble clover found everywhere on the island. Using the image of its three leaves growing from one stem, he explained the mystery of the Trinity so eloquently that, although Laegaire did not adopt the new creed, Patrick was given permission to travel freely through the land.
For twenty years Patrick spread the gospel, built churches and established schools. He sat with the high Kings at Tara to revise the Brehon Laws and, in 450 A.D., opened the first Christian college at Armagh. The magnitude of Patrick’s work is astounding. At a time when all construction was hand-hewn and mortared, he founded 385 churches and schools where thousands learned to read and write.
After a lifetime of teaching and preaching, Patrick died on March 17th, 463 A.D. The centers of learning Saint Patrick established transformed Ireland from a country with no written alphabet to a land of scholars. This humble man who would accept no gift unless it could be used to relieve the suffering of the poor had given the storytelling Irish the greatest treasure they could imagine: literature. By the end of the fifth century, the knowledge of letters had permeated the island. Poems, sagas and illustrated manuscripts poured forth from the vast Irish oral tradition.
With its long history of strife, Ireland has given birth to some of the world’s finest writers. Swift, Johnson, Shaw, Yeats and Joyce are but a few of Hibernia’s literary greats. It is no wonder that the children of Erin fondly remember their patron saint. And for over fifteen hundred years, on the anniversary of his death they have honored him with the longest running Irish wake in history.
Although it is impossible to say exactly when March 17th was first celebrated in Ireland, it is now a nation-wide holiday. In many households slices of crusty soda bread, a platter of poached fish and a “Patrick’s Pot” of beer or whisky are offered to guests in the ancient tradition of hospitality. And the shamrock appears everywhere.
The little plant has become synonymous with Irish nationalism. For a period during Victoria’s reign, wearing a shamrock was considered so rebellious that Irish regiments were forbidden to display it. A popular underground song of the day that included the line, “they’re hangin’ men and women for the wearin’ of the Green,” still brings the famous Irish spirit to the surface.
It was England’s annexation of Ireland that drove so many sons and daughters of the sod to America. When Henry VIII raged at Rome for refusing to grant him multiple divorces and created his own Church, Irish Catholics fled to a land where they could practice their faith in freedom. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, was swept away by the race to conquer and claim all of the Americas. She seized Irish land voraciously, destroyed the Celtic clan system and cut down vast forests of ancient oak to build her armada. For the next hundred years her successors systematically stripped Ireland of its resources. In droves, disenfranchised Irish fled the hammerfall of England’s scepter and the hovering specter of starvation.
By 1776, the first waves of Irish immigrants were firmly entrenched in America. When the War of Independence broke out between England and the thirteen colonies, the Irish rose to the cause with a roar of long suppressed rage. On March 17th, 1776, British troops surrendered Boston to the colonial revolutionary forces. It was one of the earliest American victories. George Washington’s password for the day was “Saint Patrick.” An official observance of Saint Patrick’s feast day by the American army was recorded at Valley Forge in 1778: “There was an extra issue of grog to the army and all made merry and were good friends.” Other early celebrations of the festival were held annually in Philadelphia, New York, and that stronghold of Irish nationalism, Boston.
Today, 45 million Americans claim a link to the green hills of Erin. For more than two centuries, Irish blood has flowed in the veins of presidents, pioneers, statesmen, military leaders, industrialists, scientists, artists and educators.
Father Flanagan carried on Saint Patrick’s tradition of building learning centers when he founded Boys Town. Composer George M. Cohan became our “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Bostonians root for the Celtics and Notre Dame’s football team is “The Fightin’ Irish.” Sad ballads and toe-tapping jigs form the backbone of bluegrass music. And when our patriotism is offended we “get our Irish up” good and proper. It’s no wonder then that on Saint Paddy’s Day cities across America stage parades, Irish stew headlines menus, and even beer flows green. As for me, it’s the luck o’ the Irish I’ll be wishing one and all with a hearty Sláinte!
NOTE: The following menu was typical of an evening meal for a high-ranking prelate or chieftain during the sixth century. Many vegetables, most notably potatoes, would not have been available for almost a thousand years more as the New World had not yet been discovered. Wine was readily had from Roman grape plantings in Gaul, but as Patrick traveled with his own brewer, beer and/or ale was the main beverage. An assortment of cheeses and nuts, plus fresh and dried fruits would have been served as the meal’s final course.
Baked Salmon w/ Wine
1 3-pound salmon filet
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
1⁄4 cup white wine
Garnish: chopped dill & watercress sprigs
Preheat oven to 350 F. Place the salmon on heavy foil large enough to gather up like a pouch. Sprinkle chopped dill on the filet and pour wine over it. Gather up foil and crimp edges to seal it. Place foil-enclosed fish in a baking dish and put it in the oven. Cook 10-15 minutes per pound or until the fish flakes when tested with a fork. (Do NOT overcook or the flesh will dry out!) Let the fish cool for a few minutes before opening foil. Remove salmon to a warm serving platter, surround with leeks, sprinkle with more dill and garnish with watercress. Serves 4-6.
8-12 medium leeks, trimmed & thoroughly washed
2 cups milk
2 tbsp butter
salt & pepper
Put the leeks in a frying pan large enough to hold them in one or two layers. Pour in milk and heat until almost boiling. DO NOT BOIL OR MILK WILL CURDLE! Immediately turn down heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until leeks are tender. Drain. (Reserved milk can be used to make chowder with leftover salmon.) Add butter, salt & pepper and arrange leeks around salmon.
Mashed Rutabagas & Carrots w/ Bacon
1⁄2 pound bacon
1 pound rutabagas, peeled and cut in cubes
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
Place vegetables in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until they are soft enough to be pierced with a fork. Drain and mash. While vegetables are cooking, fry bacon in a medium skillet until just crisp. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and let drain. When cool, crumble into bits and add to mashed mixture. A little bacon fat can be added to enhance flavor. Serves 4-6. (Extra bacon fat can be reserved and refrigerated and used to fry patties of the leftovers mixed with a little flour for another meal.)
Baked Stuffed Apples
6 medium Rome or Winesap apples, cored but unpeeled
1 cup currants
1 cup chopped walnuts
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup apple juice
Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix currants and walnuts with sugar and cinnamon. Stuff into centers of cored apples. Place apples in a baking dish or pie pan (preferably glass). Drizzle apple juice over apples and pour remainder in pan. Bake until apples can be easily pierced with a fork. Serve warm.